To old-time Marvelites, the idea of Stan Lee suing Marvel seemed surreal -- like hearing that the Pope is suing the Catholic Church. Yet Lee filed suit in Manhattan federal court in November 2002, seeking 10 percent of Marvel's profits from films like ''X-Men'' and ''Spider-Man'' and all its ancillaries (the latter movie grossed $824 million worldwide). The suit estimates Lee may be owed as much as $10 million.
Lee says it's business, not personal: ''According to the contract I have with Marvel, I should get a share of the profits. I haven't gotten anything, not even an accounting. The only way I figure to solve it satisfactorily is to let the lawyers work on it.''
In response to the suit, Marvel issued a statement that read, in part: ''Marvel believes it is in full compliance with, and current on all payments due under, the terms of Mr. Lee's employment agreement and will continue to be so in the future. Marvel intends to vigorously defend against Mr. Lee's action.''
Since Lee's name remains inextricably linked with the company -- the words ''Stan Lee Presents'' continue to appear on the title pages of the publisher's comics each month -- the lawsuit is something of a public relations nightmare for Marvel.
Avi Arad, Marvel's chief creative officer, and Ike Perlmutter, cochairman of Marvel Enterprises' board, are the men generally credited with lifting the comics giant out of its 1996 bankruptcy. Arad, who heads the company's film and TV division, declines to discuss the suit, but expresses admiration for Lee. ''Stan is like an uncle to me,'' he says. ''He has paid his dues. He deserves to enjoy the fruits of his creation.''
Howard Graff, Lee's attorney, says he expects a jury trial by the end of the year. ''I guess Marvel didn't anticipate that these movies would be such an enormous success, so they think Stan shouldn't get such a large windfall,'' says Graff. ''It's difficult to hear that, especially when they publicly report profitability that's staggering and their stock price keeps going up.''